A Perfect Confluence
By Susan Baruch
After nine years of marriage, Mary knows that the holidays are not a good time to ask her husband for a favor. Especially not this favor. And not this holiday.
It’s precisely this favor that’s been weighing heavily on Mary’s mind all day, like a hulking piece of furniture that must be shoved aside for now, like the tile-inlaid coffee table that Layla and her cadre of fourth grade girlfriends struggle each Tuesday to push against the far living room wall, creating a space large enough to dance in.
But this is no time for dancing. Mary gathers her silver-blond mane into the beaded barrette that Asim brought back from Cairo last spring. The stark contrast, her flaxen hair fastened by an Arabic trinket, always seems to delight him. There is not an ounce of enmity beneath Asim’s winning smile. And of course he never uses words like shiksa. That was her first husband’s shameful term for her. Or maybe it was his mother’s. Either way, it took Mary ten long years to understand what they really meant by it. And ten more to recover her self worth.
She gets down to the business of mincing garlic and grating ginger for karahi lamb. There will also be stuffed peppers, spicy chickpea salad and date bread for suhoor, tomorrow's pre-dawn meal before the daily fast begins. Eons ago, when she was married to Howard, she used to cook brisket and matzo ball soup for Shabbos dinners. Now she is preparing for iftar, the late night Ramadan feast, and wondering whether she is more like a chameleon, a colorful creature blending and harmonizing with its surroundings, or just a damned toady. Either way it seems she's been relegated to a member of the reptile family. Or maybe they are amphibious. Well, no matter.
Focus, Mary. Only four hours remaining until sunset. And focus she does. So much so that her head is half in the oven, maneuvering the casserole dish around when Layla slips in through the kitchen door.
"Layla! I didn't hear you come in," she exclaims when she emerges, then squeezes her daughter tight. "Go and see if Sittoo is still napping, okay, my darling? You two need to get started on the dough for the pita soon."
Ever since Layla was three years old, it’s been her job to fashion the floury dough into smooth balls and then flatten them for the pita bread. Watching Layla poke her little fingers into the gooey gobs always reminds Mary of those long ago days when Zack used to help her braid the challah for Shabbos. Layla loves hearing the story of the time Zack insisted that "his" challah needed a face. How he proudly stuck bugged-out eyes, a bulbous nose and grinning lips onto one end of the loaf before Mary tucked it into the oven. Then later how he kicked and cried whenever someone threatened to bite into his creation. Such a sweet, sensitive boy he was. Now he's a sensitive man with babies of his own, and no job.
When Zack phoned this morning to wish Mary a Happy New Year, he was really calling to ask for help. "Our money is running out," he told her. Hearing this news nearly broke her heart. Honestly it did. But why today of all days? And how can this be Rosh Hashanah when it is Ramadan too? Later Mary will read it in the newspaper, "A rare confluence of calendars: Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan." R & R, she’ll think, and chuckle to herself, taking odd pleasure in the irony of it. For there will be no R & R for Mary today, that’s certain. Not with her mother-in-law staying in the upstairs spare room till who-knows-when. Mary doesn’t mind it, not per se. But Shukura has never visited them during Ramadan before. Clearly this ratchets things up a few notches, taking Mary’s anxiety up with it to a whole new level. Tonight everything must be perfect.
She can hear them on the stairs now, Layla giggling at some improbable tale her grandmother is telling her in Arabic. Something about her childhood growing up in the land of the great pyramids, and so on. Mary catches a familiar word here and there as she chops walnuts for the bread.
Suddenly there is a burst of gaiety filling the foyer: cheerful voices lift as if rejoicing. Asim is home. Mary rinses her hands, wipes them on her apron and follows the sounds of love. Her feet move more quickly than she tells them to. He is like a magnet. A powerful force of attraction. She grabs onto the dining room archway, leaning into it with her whole body, pausing her progress just long enough to let this scene wash over her. There is electricity pulsing in her knees. Shukura kisses her son on one cheek and then the other, again and again. Layla hugs her daddy's waist, pressing her face against the small of his back. Asim's smile peeks out like a dazzling sunrise over the extravagant lilies, delicate orchids and sweet daisies in his arms. His dark eyes glisten as they cross the room, swelling Mary's heart, which lets out a soft sob. She can’t stop it, hard as she tries.
When the flowers have been arranged into vases, the date bread slipped into the oven, and the Shukura-Layla team has gotten busy on the pita detail, Asim takes Mary's hand and leads her upstairs. It's time to get dressed, not undressed, she knows. In the bedroom, with the door closed, they kiss. But no more. There is company coming.
Asim puts on his traditional Muslim garb to please his mother. He hasn't worn it in years. Mary settles for a modest knit dress, long-sleeved, high-necked. As she sits down on her side of the bed to put on her stockings, she notices that the phone is slightly askew. "Oh," she says, lifting the receiver, "this must have been left off the hook all day." She places it back squarely, as a feeling of foreboding twists her stomach, a sensation that is heightened when the phone immediately begins to ring.
"I'll get it," she says, lurching toward the nightstand. She is certain it will be Zack again. But it's the neighbors instead, calling to cancel. The baby has come down with a fever. She takes a ragged breath and gathers one leg of her pantyhose between her fingertips too tightly. "Shit!"
"What is it, my love? Try and relax a little. Everything is going to be wonderful. Now, tell me honestly, how do I look?" He spins around with upturned arms. Mary balls up her torn stockings and hurls them at him.
On the kitchen television, CNN is covering the latest Israeli-Palestinian turmoil. Before entering the room, Mary hears Layla's high voice asking Shukura for an explanation. "The Jews kicked the Palestinians out of Palestine, their own land, plain and simple. Of course they're angry. They're refugees with no place to live. Wouldn't you be angry if people came and kicked you out of your home?"
"Ah, look how many you've made already," Mary sings as she waltzes in with a purposeful smile. "The oven will be free in just a moment," she tells them. “Let me check on the date bread. I think it's time." The loaves' golden domes are nicely formed, not a single crack. Perfect. There's that word again. Why must this simple word elicit so much angst? She places the hot pans onto two ornate trivets and rearranges her smile. "Okay then, you ladies have things under control here?"
"Mm hmm," Layla nods, swishing her brush around in the olive oil.
Mary heads for the dining room to remove the unneeded place settings. She has to admit the white linen tablecloth, sent by her sister-in-law, looks lovely beneath the black and gold-rimmed dinnerware. There will only be twelve of them now. But that's a good number. Perfect, she thinks. The word won't leave her alone.
Just then the doorbell rings. Well, the table will have to wait.
"Come in, come in," she says, kissing Rashida, hugging Dan. The kids scatter past, looking for Layla. "She's in the kitchen," Mary calls after them.
"Ramadan Mubarak!" Asim announces, skipping down the stairs toward his guests.
Shukura emerges from the kitchen, apron removed, dressed in Egyptian elegance. As Asim makes the introductions, Mary slips away to attend to her dining table.
Two minutes later the doorbell rings again. Mary knows that this will be the Chowdrys, thus completing their perfect twelve.
"I've got it," Asim calls to her.
Above the din, Mary can hear the tiny squeaking of the bottom hinge as the front door is swept open once more. She begins piling dinner plates one atop the other, very quietly for some reason, until she realizes that she is not hearing the voice of her best friend, nor the usual noises of her friend's boisterous family. Instead there is a strange silence that lures her senses toward its source.
Asim is facing the open doorway. His mother and guests are behind him. Before him stand Mary's son with his wife and children behind him. Zack is wearing a dark suit with a Hebrew prayer shawl draped over one arm. Suitcases surround his feet. "I tried to call," Zack utters at last. "I’m so sorry to intrude, but… we need a place to stay for a little while."
What is the opposite of perfect? Mary wonders. Hellish? Disastrous?
Asim has not spoken a word. He turns his face to stare at her. They are standing in the same places as earlier, when his perfection made her weep. What will her imperfection, his disappointment, do to her now? Her effort to meet his eyes is almost more than she can bear. But she has no choice. She looks up.
Asim lets out a laugh, his unmistakable, good-natured Asim-laughter filling her heart, and their home. “Thank God,” she whispers.
Shukura steps forward. "Shalom," she says.
"Salaam," Zack replies.
Copyright © Susan Baruch 2011
Susan Baruch is the author of the novel Paternity, a Jewish family saga published by Comfort Publishing and featured in last year’s Jewish Book Festival. Her essays and poems have appeared in two anthologies: A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love (Adams Media, 2005) and Motherly Musings (Unlimited Publishing, 2011). Susan is a retired Kodak engineer/scientist with twelve U.S. patents to her credit. She currently volunteers in the art program at the Jewish Home of Rochester and tutors students at one of Rochester’s city schools. Susan resides in Pittsford, New York with her husband and their three red-headed children.